Topographically driven differences in energy and water constrain climatic control on forest carbon sequestration

Tyson L. Swetnam, Paul D. Brooks, Holly R. Barnard, Adrian A. Harpold, Erika L. Gallo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Mountains are vital to ecosystems and human society given their influence on global carbon and water cycles. Yet the extent to which topography regulates montane forest carbon uptake and storage remains poorly understood. To address this knowledge gap, we compared forest aboveground carbon loading to topographic metrics describing energy balance and water availability across three headwater catchments of the Boulder Creek Watershed, Colorado, USA. The catchments range from 1800 to 3500 m above mean sea level with 46-102 cm/yr mean annual precipitation and -1.2° to 12.3°C mean annual temperature. In all three catchments, we found mean forest carbon loading consistently increased from ridges (27 ± 19 Mg C ha) to valley bottoms (60 ±28 Mg C ha). Low topographic positions held up to 185 ± 76 Mg C ha, more than twice the peak value of upper positions. Toe slopes fostered disproportionately high net carbon uptake relative to other topographic positions. Carbon storage was on average 20-40 Mg C ha greater on north to northeast aspects than on south to southwest aspects, a pattern most pronounced in the highest elevation, coldest and wettest catchment. Both the peak and mean aboveground carbon storage of the three catchments, crossing an 11°C range in temperature and doubling of local precipitation, defied the expectation of an optimal elevation-gradient climatic zone for net primary production. These results have important implications for models of forest sensitivity to climate change, as well as to predicted estimates of continental carbon reservoirs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01797
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2017


  • Carbon
  • Climate change
  • Eco-hydrology
  • Forests
  • Lidar
  • Microclimate
  • Topography

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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